By Colleen Flaherty and Amanda Litvinov
Just how much political influence can money buy?
How much money can the rich pour into politics before democracy is compromised?
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Can the public possibly stand up to the seemingly unlimited resources behind the agenda to take away their rights?
These questions, and many more, are raised by the documentaries ‘Citizen Koch” and “Koch Bros. Exposed,” which both use as their starting point the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door for corporations to spend freely and anonymously in political campaigns, giving the nation’s wealthiest an outsized voice in politics.
Both films set out to unravel the very tangled web of rich donors, corporate interests, foundations and “think tanks” woven across the decades-long efforts of billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch to rig the entire political system for the nation’s wealthiest.
“I am a Republican. But what I voted for is not what I got,” said Wisconsin school librarian Mari Jo Kabat, one of three Republican Wisconsinites Citizen Koch follows in the lead up to the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker.
The Koch Brothers, who were the single largest donors to Gov. Walker’s campaign, also exerted influence over the state legislature through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that connects corporations directly with state lawmakers, making Wisconsin a testing ground for the Kochs’ takeover agenda.
And that’s why Walker’s job one was to dismantle public sector unions, one of few entities that defends the interests of everyday Americans in the fight for an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.
The deeply conservative Kabat was incensed when Walker and the GOP-led legislature, cheered on by the Koch-fueled Tea Party movement, upended the rights of workers with the passage of Act 10, sparking mass protests in Madison.
With so much ground to cover, “Citizen Koch” doesn’t go into how the Kochs’ Wisconsin project has affected public education there. Perhaps the filmmakers would consider a sequel.
“Koch Brothers Exposed,” recently rereleased for 2014, takes a much wider approach to discussing the infamous billionaire duo. They’ve been making headlines lately as large-scale donors behind the more notorious radical conservative politicians.
But according to the film, their influence goes so much farther.
Opening with chilling music and sound bites from prominent politicians, the documentary throws number after number, showcasing the wide net of donations the Koch Brothers have cast over various campaigns, organizations and even schools since the Citizens United decision.
“We have an amazing team of researchers. They’ve spent—they’ve literally been working 18, 20 hours a day trying to get the numbers, get the facts,” said Robert Greenwald, director of Koch Brothers Exposed.
“So in addition to what’s public, there’s so much money that they hide. There’s the so-called Koch Bank. There are trusts set up. And we’re still tearing out our hair about how much more money that we’re not even knowing about.”
Their influence reaches all the way to the local level. Take for example Wake County, North Carolina. ALEC-endorsed candidates outspent their opponents hardily thanks to Koch dollars and took over the school board. They enacted ALEC-backed policies, even going so far as to resegregate the schools.
The Kochs are also using their billions to push their propaganda at universities. As donors to higher education, the Kochs have designed grant agreements with more than 150 colleges and universities where they have control over who gets hired. The programs they fund present only their views in class, curricula and in their research.
For a film that only runs an hour—and is available to watch for free—it covers a remarkable number of topics, from their attack on workers’ rights and dismantling unions, to blocking efforts to raise the minimum wage and even environmental devastation from several factories owned by Koch Industries.
Any viewer who doesn’t reside in the top 2 percent on the wealth spectrum—especially those who fall short of making $1.8 million per hour like the Kochs do—can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the facts presented in these films.
The one way in which the nation’s richest and poorest are all equal is in our Constitutionally protected right to vote—but the Koch network is doing its best to tamper with that, too, namely through an onslaught of unneeded voter suppression laws passed throughout the country.
The effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker was unsuccessful, but last year Wake County voted out the Koch-funded school board members who put the interests of their donors before those of the community.
The upcoming 2014 midterm elections are the best chance for education advocates and working people to vote out the governors, state legislators and federal representatives whose records show they will push the agenda of rich corporations and CEOs at the expense of students, educators and working families.